My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
Think of all the photos you have with people you don’t know in the background. Now imagine this - what if you could see all the photos others have taken that have you in the background. You when you’re not posing; just going about your life. What a story the collection would tell about your life. What are you wearing. Who are you with. What’s your common facial expression and posture. Do you remember when some of those photos must have been taken? It would be like seeing yourself in a documentary you're unaware of, literally through the lens of others.
One step further – to see photos of people you know well in the background of other people’s photos. You might learn things about them you couldn’t have imagined.
Maybe we’ll all get this chance to see ourselves au casual when online facial recognition is incorporated into search. Muy creepy but also enlightening.
As a student of human behavior it helps to be ultra-aware of oneself. So another idea occurred to me. In the user experience (UX) profession we have something called ‘personas’. These are characteristics and day-in-the-life stories that are rolled into an example person for the purposes of guiding product development and “user experiences”. These personas are given names, occupations, ages, education levels, experience and knowledge in certain areas, and specific behaviors and attitudes that have been observed in real life. In full disclosure, some have questioned the scientific validity of personas. Designers and others, though, consider them highly valuable even if they are flawed.
So imagine this – what if you could walk through a gallery of the personas that corporations think you fit into. For instance, due to recent disclosures I now know that Google thinks based on my search patterns that I am a 25-34 year old male. So in this gallery there would be a figure of this persona and a placard describing the persona’s traits. Google uses this persona to create products they think I would like. It’s actually not so important that these gallery personas accurately reflect who I am demographically – personas are about behaviors, interests, fears and desires. Again, how fascinating it would be to take in this collection of representations of who I am based on the trail of data I leave behind as I go about living my life.
What would I do with this information? Well, it would be like getting feedback, a way of capturing an unbiased data stream about myself. I might see disturbing things and hopeful things. Certainly here would be hints of how others might see me.
What if, in the future, corporations built androids with these persona traits and then observed them in daily life. That way, if the personas synch accurately to their human counterparts it would no longer be necessary to study actual humans for difficult or sensitive questions. So, say, these androids could be studied for research questions about sexuality or hygiene or mental health problems.
By now I’ve read the first chapter of Phil McKinney’s book “Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation" online. I heard the podcast. There have been reviews. And now there’s been a Silicon Valley book tour interview at the Computer History Museum. This is his first book; Mr. McKinney’s thoughts after leaving HP.
The book is another essay pressing the message that to innovate businesses must dare to break out of their ruts. His prescription is to stop accepting common knowledge and preventing the boat from rocking. To allow the less conventional thinking its day in the sun.
So we’re hoping that the real news is in the execution. Riskiness is all well and good until rubber meets the road. Stakeholders, bonuses, and weekend homes are on the line.
And so it is: Phil McKinney suggests we ask Killer Questions. Questions that require thought and maybe a little digging (Daniel Kahnemann’s System 2). Specifically, we should ask: Who, What, and How.
Who are the customers? No actually – who are they really? Two nominally legitimate methods are outlined. But first, an ad hoc data collection story.
As a VP at HP Mr. McKinney became a regular “visitor” at Best Buy, quizzing new laptop owners about why they didn’t buy an HP. Once he learned about a buying pattern from the Geek Squad that he forwarded immediately to HP. Of course, actual research may or may not validate the cause -> effect observation, but everybody likes a good story.
Let’s be clear. It’s an executive privilege to get away with guerilla research inside a retail store. A UX researcher for HP would get the bum’s rush. Wouldn’t it be great to compile these data; to collaborate with the UX team. Except that, bottom line, this kind of off-the-cuff research is unethical and certainly unscientific. People should be informed that they are participating in research. Allowing such research makes Best Buy complicit in the research. It also interferes in the shopper’s overall experience. And it’s not systematic. Upshot: executives get a jolt from directly influencing product development. Shows that they know their own shop. But let’s not pretend that this is more than anecdotal inquiry that is useful to executives.
So what is legitimate inquiry? Phil McKinney does reverse engineering. Look at how things are and try to figure out how they got that way. And then think of even more ways things could have gotten this way – go beyond the obvious.
I do reverse engineering, too. We all sometimes skim through the New Yorker Magazine just reading the cartoons. Sometimes they’re immediately funny because the point is obvious and not very profound. Most of them also make a deeper socio-cultural comment. So it’s fun to figure out the cartoonist's original observation and then trace how the cartoonist arrived at this visual and verbal expression.
What’s cool is that in scientific method this is called “generating hypotheses”. The next step in considering possibilities is seeing if anyone else has tackled the question and derived potential explanations. Eventually one whittles down the list of hypotheses, arriving at a handful of better-educated guesses.
But wait - we're not done. Before leaping to solutions, how about some real life observation and testing of variables?
So reverse engineering is one person “brainstorming”. The other method Mr. McKinney touts is for team reverse engineering, generating educated guesses and solutions in a compressed time period. The classic brainstorming session. Timing is a little rough on this one considering recent raps against brainstorming here and here.
The key, he says, is to rank the final results for better implementation. That’s an idea for handing off actionable possibilities for executives to get behind. Finally a team is being given latitude to exercise their expertise.
The What question is something related to the product or service. This might be where product development or marketing considerations may come into play.
The How question pertains to organizational execution.
I’m glad Phil McKinney makes these points to his peers - the executive echelon. A stronger correlation from these ideas to UX research would be useful to the rest of us.
Frog Design posted a piece called Making Sense of Occupy, extolling the virtues of well-aimed photographs to avoid stereotypes and to tell a complete story.
I'd extend the observation about the value of photographs to include the value of primary recording of any kind, including audio. A first impression of something vs. what can be seen or heard in a later moment away from the event can be night and day.
Once when I interviewed a woman I thought to myself that she had nothing significant to say. Listening later to the recording, it was like a ghost in the room was saying stunning things - how could I have missed this on first hearing? Well, the act of seeking can be a distraction from taking it in.
Researchers and designers under great time pressures push for immediate discoveries from observations. All the more reason to "cover" an event. Yes, discover onsite. Focus on the hypotheses at hand and the unique behaviors being expressed. But also remember to pull back, allowing for the possibility of discovering points later. In the processing ("groking") is where many significant discoveries and new research questions pop up.
Moral: Don't rely on notes or your memory. Don't rely on your own socio-cultural categories or those of others. Get it on camera or on audio. Practice "covering" the parts and the contexts.
This happens all the time. People ask me if I’ve run across some big thing that people sorely need. Never mind that if I knew that I’d already be rich.
I understand why they ask. I bill myself as an explorer in the magnetic field between people and everything else, usually high technology or delivery thereof. But the way it works is that I’m not walking around with a handful of packaged, unused ideas.
I’ve found plenty of friction in the flows of life. Just – we expect to do some crunching; some deeper diving, some sanity checking, some big-time brainstorming. Idea refinement. Even in this Age of Agility, R&D still happens in contexts for optimal results.
Here’s a tip. Turn the entrepreneurial-idea machine off sometimes and just listen to people ramble about their lives. Listen to them talk about their pains and their aspirations. Listen for things to build on, including realms that seem outside your your usual domain. Collect them, trade them, write them down, draw them, sing them, cook them, sleep on them. If you don’t you might not be serious about landing on good ideas. You never know where an idea comes from. There’s time to focus on diving deeper later, and you’ll be better acquainted with your idea for eventually describing it to investors.
Experience researcher of built environments with an anthropology provenance. Copyright 2004-2017